Authorship and authority: Frankenstein and its French translation

Is Frankenstein the work of one author alone? In that question, two words need defining: “work” and “author”. First, a work is not just a book, not just a novel; it is above all an entity composed of many things, including the productions derived from the original text. In the case of Frankenstein, the novel was the first version of the work. Frankenstein as a work goes beyond the status of national treasure since it became international through translation. Thus, each translation has to be acknowledged as another version of the work. According to Oustinoff:

Les traductions sont des versions à part entière de l’œuvre dont elles dérivent, l’original n’étant plus qu’une version, certes primordiale, parmi d’autres, opinion développée par Borges dans « Las Versiones Homéricas »1

The same can be said of the intersemiotic translation of Frankenstein into film: each film is yet another version of the work. Is Mary Shelley the author of the whole work? Of each translation? Of each film? If she is “only” the author of the first version, does she have authority over the other authors? Those are the questions addressed in this essay. Three French translations will be analyzed: Hannah Betjeman’s, dated 1947, Joe Ceurvorst’s, dated 1964, and Alain Morvan’s, a contemporary professor of literature, whose 2005 essay on Frankenstein probably pre-empted his 2017 translation. Another one of the latest French works on Frankenstein was written by French author André- François Ruaud. In his fictional biography of Victor Frankenstein, fact and fiction intertwine to propose an interesting perception of Frankenstein. Morvan’s essay and Ruaud’s will help to shed some light on the French perception of the novel, while other studies will help with other aspects, such as the cinematic versions and the feminist reading of the novel. The first part will analyze the authority of Mary Shelley. The second part will examine to what extent each translator can be called a co-author of Frankenstein. Finally, the last section will broach the aesthetics of Frankenstein as a work.

Frankenstein is made of several versions, which Morvan describes as follows:

Mary Shelley, on le sait, publie Frankenstein en 1818. La deuxième [édition], qui date de 1823, n’apporte que peu de changements par rapport à la première. La troisième paraît en 1831 ; elle comporte pour sa part un certain nombre de modifications qui justifieraient, pour certains, que l’on parlât à leur propos de recentrage idéologique – en l’occurrence, dans un sens plus réactionnaire que l’édition en 18182. (Morvan 2014, 174)

Morvan seems to think that the 1823 edition could almost be overlooked. Also, it could be said of the first one was truest to what Mary Shelley had in mind, and that the last one was proof of a lack of authority on Shelley’s part, as she seems to have amended the text to make it more compatible with the morals of her time. Her editor may have made her yield some of her authority by asking her to rewrite the original text.

Mary Shelley’s authority or even authorship may not have been recognized at all at the beginning, as the 1818 edition was first published anonymously, and the author was believed to be Percy Shelley, who actually wrote the 1818 preface to the novel. According to Ruaud, Mary Shelley claimed to be the legitimate author with one simple letter:

14 juin 1818 : Mary écrit à Walter Scott pour le remercier de sa très bonne chronique de Frankenstein dans le Blackwood’s Edinbugh Magazine. Par ce geste, Mary revendique être l’auteur du roman, qu’on attribuait jusqu’à présent à Percy3. (Ruaud 2017, 194)

It was then, most likely, that Mary Shelley was generally acknowledged as the author of Frankenstein, but Percy Shelley not only penned the preface, he probably also gave her some literary advice. However, he died in 1822; the 1831 edition left little doubt that Mary Shelley did write the novel. Some might still question the fact that she wrote Frankenstein for the simple reason that the 1818 edition is generally preferred to the 1831 edition. According to Morvan, “il convient en premier lieu d’observer que la mode actuelle est à réhabiliter l’édition de 1818”4 (Morvan 2015, 174). Apparently, the most quoted version of the text is the 1818 version, but I think it would not be reasonable to deduce that the Percy Shelley version is preferred to the Mary Shelley version, as Percy Shelley never denied that his wife had written Frankenstein, nor did any of their literary friends, such as Lord Byron.

Nevertheless, in France, Ruaud too is focused on the 1818 edition and disregards the French translations, “trop peu fidèles”5 (Ruaud 2017, 49), which brings us to the subject of the translations of Frankenstein. If the authorship of the novel can be attributed to Mary Shelley, what of the authorship of the translations? Noosfere online has compiled a comprehensive list of the French translations of Frankenstein. The anonymous book review of Frankenstein on Noosfere lists all French editions. It shows their covers and the names of all the translators when they appear in the books. For reference, the 1821 translation was written by Jules Saladin, the 1922 by Germain D’hangest, and the 1932 does not mention the translator’s name. The 1945 was written by Georges Cuvelier, the 1946 by Henry Langon, the 1947 by Hannah Betjeman, the 1964 by Joe Ceurvorst, the 1968 by Raymonde de Gans, the 1976 by Guy Abadia, the 1979 by Jean-Marie Mellet, the 1988 by Paul Couturiau, and finally the 2015 by Alain Morvan. Eleven translators, maybe twelve. Does this comparatively large number of translators mean that the last translation is the best and that the previous translations were all flawed? Of course, it does not. It may rather mean that in France, Frankenstein is a well-known character that needs to be rediscovered regularly. The fact that the novel is now in the public domain also makes it financially interesting for a publisher to order a new translation, but it is more likely that the fascination for the doctor and the monster compels publishers to release a new translation, and perhaps academics to propose a new one to a publisher. According to French law, the translator is the author of the translation, and s/he earns royalties from it: a translation is recognized as the intellectual property of the translator. Indeed, a translation is not a copy of the original; it is perforce different from the original. Therefore, Mary Shelley is “just” the author of the original version of the work, and each translation is another version added to the whole work, which no longer belongs to the author of the original version. By the same token, each film based on Frankenstein becomes another version of the work but cannot be the same as the original book. Mary Shelley did not shoot any of those films, did not write any of those translations, and, after a fashion, did not write Frankenstein alone: she was inspired and even assisted by others such as Percy Shelley. Thus, authorship is multiple but applies only to one version of the work.

Now the translation of Frankenstein is the only text that francophones who do not read English can use to read the novel. As we saw earlier, the translator’s name does not always appear inside the book, so the reader has to bestow the authority of the novel to Mary Shelley, whose name always appears on the cover. In other words, the reader trusts that Mary Shelley wrote the text that they are reading, although any author has to trust that the translator gives a rendering of the original text as “closely”, or “faithfully” as possible. That is to say, the author gives the translator the authority to write a translation. As for the translator, s/he has to take into account what her or his editor has to say: the editor has a degree of authority over the translator (and over almost any author6). But the question of authority becomes interesting when there are previous translations, or when a translator replaces another one for the new installment of a literary saga. George R. R. Martin’s famous saga A Song of Ice and Fire is composed of five tomes so far. The first four were translated into French by Jean Sola, but the fifth was translated by Patrick Marcel. Marcel was forced to use some of Sola’s choices, for example when translating recurring narrative elements. In that respect, Sola had a degree of authority over Marcel, for better or worse. However, in the case of a new translation of Frankenstein, the new translator’s version may become the easiest to find in a bookshop, replacing the previous ones, and thus gaining authority over the previous ones. All in all, authority is quite a variable.

Unless a previous translator mistranslated or deliberately omitted a few passages of the original text, the latest translation will not be better than any of the previous ones, as they are all different versions of the work, but it will be the most accessible. Let us now see the differences between the three translations.

Among the aforementioned translations, this paper focuses on three to establish an overview of Frankenstein as its French readers see it. The first one is Hannah Betjeman’s (1947). It is particularly interesting for two main aspects: first, it is one of the oldest, and second, the translator is a woman. Hannah Betjeman was not a very prolific translator, but her translation was reprinted five times and was also chosen for a very recent Folio Junior edition (2018), aimed at a young audience, roughly aged 14 to 18. The second is Joe Ceurvorst’s (1964), and it was reissued an impressive 26 times. Needless to say, for a majority of French readers, there is only Ceurvorst’s Frankenstein. The third one is the latest translation at this time, Alain Morvan’s (2014), who is an academic who studied Frankenstein in the original text and most likely in its French translations, too. In order to compare the three translations, this paper analyzes several significant passages: the opening paragraph, one of Frankenstein’s soliloquies before the awakening of the monster, the physical description of the monster, and Frankenstein’s reflections on creating a second monster. Of chief importance are each translator’s choices and preferences. I call choices the rhetorical effects that the translator uses to render a similar rhetorical effect in the source text, and I call preferences the rhetorical effects that the translator inserts in the target text when there were none in the source text. Choices and preferences in translation combine to inform the translator’s style, seen as a surplus7 on an act of language. Choices and preferences are a way for the translator to claim the translation as her or his own, to “sign” that version of the work.

To Mrs Saville, England.
St Petersburgh, Dec. 11Th 17–
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increase confidence in the success of my undertaking. (Shelley 1818, 13)

À Madame Saville, Angleterre.
Saint-Pétersbourg, le 11 décembre 17…
Tu te réjouiras d’apprendre que le début de l’aventure que tu appréhendais s’est bien passé.
Je suis arrivé ici hier et mon premier soin est de t’assurer, ma chère sœur, de ma bonne santé et de ma confiance croissante dans le succès de mon entreprise.
(Betjeman 1947, 7)

The translator does not cling to the words of the source text and even shortens it, understates it: “regard with evil forebodings” becomes a simple appréhender, i.e. “dread”. “No disaster” becomes bien se passer, ie, “go well”, a little far from the source text. Mrs. Saville is now a Madame: the French title is an indicator of cultural assimilation. Also, she is now talked to: “my dear sister” remained a third person in the source text but ma chère sœur is a vocative in the translation, a preference of the translator’s for the reader to identify the relationship between Mrs. Saville and Walton.

Here is Ceurvorst’s translation:

À Madame Saville, Angleterre.
Saint-Pétersbourg, 11 décembre 17 –
Tu seras heureuse d’apprendre qu’aucun désastre n’a marqué le début de l’entreprise au sujet de laquelle tu nourrissais de si funestes pressentiments. Je suis arrivé ici hier, et ma première tâche est de tranquilliser ma chère sœur et de lui faire part de ma confiance croissante dans la réussite de mes projets. (Ceurvorst 1964, 11)

Again, “Mrs” becomes an assimilated Madame. There is an equivalent for every word of the source text, but the choices are clearly more literary than Betjeman’s translation: au sujet de laquelle, tu nourrissais sound rather formal and elegant. There are no telltale preferences in this passage of the target text, but it is rather surprising to see confiance croissante in Ceurvorst’s text and in Betjeman’s, as it is not a usual collocation in French. Grandissante could have been an alternative. Maybe Ceurvorst had access to Betjeman’s translation, but it is probably sheer chance.

Morvan proposes something sometimes similar, sometimes different:

À Mrs. Saville, Angleterre.
Saint-Pétersbourg, 11 décembre 17..
Vous serez heureuse d’apprendre que le commencement d’une aventure que vous regardiez avec tant de fâcheux pressentiments s’est déroulé sans aucun désastre. Je suis arrivé ici hier ; et j’ai pour première tâche d’assurer ma chère sœur que je me porte bien et que j’ai de plus en plus confiance dans le succès de mon entreprise. (Morvan 2014, 25)

Être heureuse is also Morvan’s choice to translate “rejoice”, just like Ceurvorst’s. Betjeman’s solution had the advantage to be as concise as the original. Morvan uses the vous form, a relatively formal way to write to one’s sister, which can be seen as a personal preference of the translator. He then carries out a word-for-word translation but “no disaster”, subject in the source text, becomes an adverbial phrase in the target text, which is another preference of the translator’s. The rest of the passage is a little rephrased, but still equivalent to the source text, perhaps an attempt to be different from the previous translators.

The next excerpt is short but interesting as it mingles the voices of the narrators.

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.
(Shelley 1818, 46)

On a déjà beaucoup fait, criait l’âme de Frankenstein, mais j’en ferai beaucoup plus encore en suivant le chemin déjà tracé, je préparerai de nouvelles voies, je dévoilerai des puissances inconnues et je révélerai au monde les secrets des plus grands mystères de la création. (Betjeman 1947, 49)

Betjeman is cautious and follows the source text when translating “exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein” so as to create the same narrative ambiguity: is Frankenstein developing a double personality? Is Walton taking control as the narrator? Betjeman lets the reader decide. Then she translates “pioneer” by préparer, which is a little less potent, but she seems to make up for that choice as she translates “explore” and “unfold” respectively by dévoiler and révéler, two words belonging to the same semantic field, an interesting rhetorical effect.

Let us now see Ceurvorst’s translation:

Autant a été accompli, clamait mon âme, mais tu réaliseras davantage encore, bien davantage !
Marchant sur les traces de ceux qui m’avaient précédé et les dépassant, je ferais œuvre de pionnier en m’engageant dans des voies nouvelles. J’explorerais les forces encore inconnues et révèlerais au monde les mystères les plus secrets de la création. (Ceurvorst 1964, 73)

Ceurvorst’s translation starts oddly: autant may mean “just as much”, but not exactly “so much”, which may be a deliberate attempt to shake the structures of the French language, and to renew them through what Venuti would call a foreignizing translation8. Then, Ceurvorst seems to claim authorship of his translation, choosing to translate “the soul of Frankenstein” by mon âme, literally “my soul”, thus suppressing the ambiguity of the source text, and then turns the “I” into a tu, i.e. a “you”. The translation of “pioneer” is accurate but developed into faire œuvre de pionnier, which entails a few structural differences in comparison with the source text. Again, this turns the text into Ceurvorst’s own.

Morvan’s translation is as follows:

On a tant fait, s’exclamait l’âme de Frankenstein – je vais accomplir beaucoup, beaucoup d’autres choses. En suivant les pas qui ont déjà laissé leur marque, je veux inaugurer un nouveau chemin, explorer des puissances inconnues et dévoiler au monde les plus profonds mystères de la création. (Morvan 2014, 73)

Compared to Ceurvorst, Morvan follows the source text more closely. He does not try to be experimental: the passive voice seen in “so much has been done” is turned into a sentence in the active voice introduced by on, a regular transformation. No risk is taken with the structure of “more, far more will I achieve”. A slight preference can be detected in the translation of ” I will pioneer”: je veux inaugurer, the verb vouloir preventing an awkward repetition of the near future auxiliary aller used in the previous sentence. About that segment, inaugurer is quite a good and economical choice to translate “pioneer”, in my opinion.

Next is one of the most famous passages of the novel: the description of the creature.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips. (Shelley 1818, 55)

Comment décrire mon émotion devant cette catastrophe et dépeindre le misérable que j’avais réussi à créer après tant de soins ? Ses membres étaient à sa taille et j’avais essayé de le rendre beau. Beau ! Mon Dieu !… Sa peau jaune recouvrait à peine ses muscles et ses veines. Ses cheveux étaient pourtant abondants et d’un noir brillant. Ses dents étaient blanches comme des perles, mais ces splendeurs contrastaient d’une façon plus horrible encore avec ses yeux larmoyants et sans couleur, son visage ridé, le trait noir qui formait ses lèvres. (Betjeman 1947, 59-60)

There is a contradiction that can be construed from Betjeman’s choice of réussir, as that verb has a positive connotation linked with success, and “endeavour”, which has more to do with effort. Also, à sa taille is a phrase commonly used to say that something like a shirt fits someone. Essayer de le rendre beau, literally “try to make it beautiful” is rather far away from the source text; I suspect that the translator deemed it more important to render the anadiplosis of “beautiful”. Also, the translator once more shortened the source text with sans couleur translating “that seemed… set”.

In his translation, Ceurvorst tries to give a much more literary rendering, sometimes successfully, sometimes maybe less so:

Comment pourrais-je dire l’émotion que j’éprouvais devant cette catastrophe ou trouver les mots pour décrire l’être repoussant que j’avais créé au prix de tant d’efforts ? Ses membres étaient, certes, bien proportionnés, et je m’étais efforcé de conférer à ses traits une certaine beauté. De la beauté ! Grand Dieu ! Sa peau jaunâtre dissimulait à peine le lacis sous-jacent de muscles et de vaisseaux sanguins. Sa chevelure était longue et soyeuse, ses dents d’une blancheur nacrée, mais cela ne faisait que mieux ressortir l’horreur des yeux vitreux, dont la couleur semblait se rapprocher de celle des orbites blafardes dans lesquelles ils étaient profondément enfoncés. Cela contrastait aussi avec la peau ratatinée du visage et de la bouche rectiligne aux lèvres presque noires. (Ceurvorst 1964, 91-92)

Ceurvorst adds or cuts here and there and obtains a very personal result. Trouver les mots (literally, “find the words”) is such an addition: a fitting one, but an addition nonetheless. Endeavor seems untranslated, probably to avoid repetition with the verb s’efforcer in the next sentence. The anadiplosis of “beautiful” is rendered with beauté, but is a little postponed because of the article de la. Then comes a literary preference of the translator’s: le lacis sous-jacent de muscles et de vaisseaux sanguins, an alliteration with the sound /s/ which cannot be found in the source text but adds a great deal of stylistic effect in the target text. Ceurvorst does away with the colour of the hair, perhaps for structural purposes: longue et soyeuse are two well balanced adjectives that would not bear the juxtaposition of a third adjective. Unfortunately, suppressing the hair color means suppressing the echo created with the color of the lips, also black, which Ceurvorst, for some reason, finds almost black, presque noires.

Morvan tries to be as close as possible to the source text:

Comment pourrais-je décrire les émotions que je ressentis devant un tel dénouement, ou dépeindre le misérable, auquel, au prix de peines et d’un soin infinis, je m’étais mis en tête de donner forme. Il avait les membres proportionnés et j’avais choisi ses traits pour leur beauté. Leur beauté – Dieu tout-puissant ! Sa peau jaune couvrait à peine l’entrelacs de muscles et d’artères qui la sous-tendait. Ses cheveux étaient d’un noir luisant, et lui tombaient dans le cou. Ses dents avaient la blancheur des perles. Mais toutes ces luxuriances ne servaient qu’à produire un contraste plus atroce avec ses cheveux délavés, qui paraissaient presque de la même couleur que les orbites grivelées où ils étaient logés, ainsi qu’avec son teint parcheminé et ses lèvres toutes droites et noires. (Morvan 2014, 86)

Structurally similar, sometimes domesticating, sometimes foreignizing: this translation is about negotiation. Indeed, il avait les membres proportionnés is a very French way to phrase that sentence, as the predicate starts with the person and not the limbs. However, ses cheveux and ses dents become subjects later on, although it was possible to follow the French structural pattern: “Il avait les cheveux…”, “il avait les dents…”. There is a two-word anadiplosis with leur beauté, which, in my opinion, is the neatest solution of the three translations.

The last excerpt that I will analyze here has to do with feminism. Frankenstein is often considered a great example of feminist writing, and because of that, I chose a woman translator in my corpus. Hannah Betjeman’s translation of Frankenstein was published in 1947, which was well before the use of l’écriture féminine described by Long Hoeveler, who writes about the 1970s and the 1980s and people such as Julia Kristéva:

In such a [masculine-dominated] linguistic situation, women can either rebel either through the strategic use of silence or by using l’écriture féminine, a specifically feminine form of language that is based on female subjectivity and the physiology and bodily instincts of women. French feminism identifies l’écriture féminine with the pleasures (jouissance) of living in and writing out of a female body in harmony with the voice and body of the mother. (Long Hoeveler 2003, 46)

Very little of Betjeman’s career and views on feminism is known, and the feminist reading that Long Hoeveler does of Frankenstein seems to be a thematic approach more than a rhetorical approach; however, there are passages in Frankenstein and its French translations which may fuel feminist ideas. Here is one of them: Frankenstein is thinking about creating a female companion for his first creature, a possible way for both Frankenstein and the creature to find peace; that is to say, peace may only come from feminity.

I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighborhood of man and hide in deserts, but she had not; and she who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of a man; she might quit him, and he is again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species. (Shelley 1818, 160)

J’allais former un autre être dont j’ignorais quel serait le caractère ; elle pouvait devenir plus cruelle que son compagnon. Lui, avait juré de quitter le voisinage des hommes et de se cacher dans les déserts ; mais elle ? Sa pensée et sa raison pouvaient refuser de se soumettre à un pacte conclu avant sa création. Ils pouvaient même se haïr ; la créature qui vivait déjà avait horreur de sa propre difformité. Ne haïrait-il pas davantage encore cette laideur lorsqu’il la verrait sous la forme d’une femme ? Elle aussi pouvait le repousser pour se tourner vers la beauté supérieure de l’homme. (Betjeman 1947, 187)

Again, the translation shortens the source text, but most interestingly, in this passage about a man thinking about creating a female creature, a woman’s words are translated by another woman, except that a narrator is a man. The gender-explicit words, i.e. the pronouns “he”, “she”, etc., the noun “man” and the adjective “female”, are translated literally. The female creature that Frankenstein is considering creating is never referred to as a woman (only “being”, “animal”, “one of his own species”), but Betjeman does use the word femme to refer to the creature and refrains from calling her an animal. However, it would be controversial to conclude that because she used that one word, Betjeman did a feminist translation. Nevertheless, she did not recoil from using that word.

Ceurvorst’s translation has a different feel:

Et voilà que je me préparais à donner la vie à une autre créature de la même espèce, dont j’ignorais également quelles seraient les dispositions naturelles. Peut-être se révélerait-elle mille fois plus maligne encore que la première et n’aurait-elle d’autre but que de s’adonner au crime, par pure passion de faire le mal ? Le monstre s’était, certes, engagé formellement à s’éloigner du voisinage des humains et à aller se cacher au plus profond de quelque solitude désertique. Mais sa compagne accepterait-elle de se conformer à pareille décision ? Destinée, selon toute probabilité, à n’être autre chose qu’une brute pensante, ne refuserait-elle pas d’observer un engagement pris avant même qu’elle n’existât ? Il était aussi possible que les deux monstres se prissent à se haïr mutuellement. Celui qui existait déjà détestait sa propre difformité ; n’allait-il pas l’abhorrer davantage encore lorsqu’il la verrait confirmée constamment à ses yeux, dans sa version féminine ? Quant à elle, n’allait-elle pas se détourner avec dégoût de son compagnon, lorsqu’elle serait en mesure d’établir une comparaison avec l’homme, créature de Dieu ? Rien ne garantissait qu’elle ne le quitterait pas et que lui, se retrouvant seul, ne puiserait pas un nouveau motif d’exaspération dans le fait d’avoir été abandonné par une créature de sa propre espèce, la seule avec laquelle il eût pu frayer. (Ceurvorst 1964, 291-292)

Compagne and féminine are the two words that clarify the sex of the second creature in Ceurvorst’s translation of this passage. Again, the text is rather literary with a preference for verbs in the imperfect subjunctive, for example. The pronoun elle is not exactly gender-explicit as it refers to la créature, a feminine word; Frankenstein’s use of “she” is more explicit. In comparison, Betjeman had used l’être, a masculine word, to refer to the female creature, and then had used elle. One could be tempted to deduce that Betjeman was less shy about calling the female creature a woman than Ceurvorst.

Let us now consider Morvan’s translation:

À présent, j’étais sur le point de fabriquer une autre créature, dont je méconnaissais tout autant les dispositions ; elle deviendrait peut-être dix mille fois plus mauvaise que son compagnon, assassinant et répandant le malheur pour le plaisir. Il avait juré de quitter le voisinage des hommes et de se cacher en des régions désertes ; elle, en revanche, n’avait rien juré et comme, selon toute probabilité, elle était appelée à devenir un animal capable de penser et de raisonner, elle refuserait peut-être de donner son assentiment à un pacte conclu avant qu’elle n’eût été créée. Il se pourrait même qu’ils se haïssent ; celui qui existait déjà exécrait sa propre laideur – ne se pourrait-il point qu’il en vînt à l’abhorrer davantage encore lorsqu’il la verrait devant lui, sous les traits d’une femelle ? Elle aussi, de dégoût, se détournerait peut-être de lui, au bénéfice de la beauté supérieure de l’homme ; peut-être le quitterait-elle et lui, à nouveau seul, s’exaspérerait de cette nouvelle provocation : être abandonné par quelqu’un de sa propre espèce. (Morvan 2014, 241-242)

Morvan uses the most surprising of terms to describe the creature: une femelle, only used for animals in French. Of course, the source text does say “animal”, which Betjeman omits and Ceurvorst translates as brute, a charming word that can apply to humans; but the animal is a thinking animal, a somewhat pithy definition of humans. In that regard, Morvan’s translation of the passage is probably the least feminist of the three.

In light of the passages analyzed here, and in terms of choices and preferences, Morvan seems to be the least inclined to follow a personal agenda. Ceurvorst’s preoccupation is seemingly to produce a literary text, and Betjeman, an early translator, suppressed a good deal of the source text. The French reception and perception of Frankenstein is therefore manifold, a little like the perception of mythological myths and creatures appearing in various poems, plays, and novels, which is probably Morvan’s sentiment too:

En puisant dans le substrat mythologique de la civilisation judéo-chrétienne, en exploitant des histoires fondatrices, elle a su donner naissance à son tour (tel Victor Frankenstein donnant naissance à son monstre) à un mythe fondateur9.
(Morvan 2015, 186)

Just as heroes or monsters in recent texts may be reminiscent of various mythological creatures, Frankenstein and his monster may be construed in different ways, and each translation may generate new interpretations, which means that the translations of Frankenstein add a lot of aesthetical value to the work.

No matter who the translator is, Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s novel, although francophone readers would not know about the novel without the translators. One could argue that internationally, Mary Shelley is almost like a character in her own novel, in the sense that Mary Shelley, her translators, and people like Kenneth Branagh can only claim the authorship of their version of Frankenstein at the micro-level, but not of the whole work known as Frankenstein at the macro-level, and so Mary Shelley’s name appearing next to Frankenstein’s, especially in the title of Kenneth Branagh’s film, in a sense turns her into an ethereal character of the work, which somehow transcends its authors.

Aesthetically, each version adds something to the work, or changes it in some ways, sometimes invisibly to the untrained eye, and sometimes evidently, as in the films about Frankenstein. Ruaud depicts Frankenstein’s monster as seen on stage and on-screen:

Passé de l’état d’individu à celui de lieu commun, le monstre de Frankenstein s’est tout d’abord peint en bleu (la couleur choisie par le premier metteur en scène théâtral) puis, par confusion avec sa reprise humoristique chez Chaz Addams, en vert. Son front s’est rehaussé, son abondante et longue chevelure s’est raréfiée, sa voix s’est tue. À la création du jeune Frankenstein a succédé celle de Boris Karloff10. (Ruaud 2017, 105)

For aesthetic purposes directly linked with the director’s vision, there is quite a discrepancy between the description of the monster that I quoted earlier and the visuals of the monster on stage and on film, except for Robert De Niro’s impersonation. Indeed, the generations following the film featuring Boris Karloff as the monster generally visualize the latter when they think of Frankenstein’s monster, and, I believe, easily confuse the creator with the creature, attributing the name of Frankenstein to the creature, although the latter remains nameless. The viewers who read the novel after watching the film may even be in for surprises, as Schor explains: “Readers who arrive at Shelley’s novel by way of the cinematic Frankenstein – which, today, includes nearly everyone – are inevitably surprised by the quietness and dimness of the creature’s animation” (Schor 2003, 63). The aesthetics of Mary Shelley’s novel and of the films cannot be one and the same: the authors, and the semiotics, are all different. The difference can be seen as a reduction; it is my feeling that readers of a book often feel short-changed after watching the cinematic version, as does Schor, apparently: “Branagh’s film, its title lamely mimicking Coppola’s successful Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was neither a critical nor a box office success. The film’s chief pitfall lies not in its unscary, sophomoric gore and slime, but in its reductive, oedipal reading of Frankenstein’s motives” (Schor 2003, 71). To me, the “chief pitfall” would rather lie in the title. Schor finds it “lame” because it seems that Branagh stole Coppola’s idea: Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Again, the main problem that I see is that just as a translation is not the original, a film is not the book. If Branagh really wants to have an “oedipal reading” of the book, I believe that he is entitled to it, but the result is certainly no longer “Mary Shelley’s” Frankenstein. It is Branagh’s, and so the title of the film was a misnomer. Morvan too seems to think so:

À y regarder de plus près, l’illusion de la fidélité se dissipe. C’est bien d’un film inspiré par le roman de Mary Shelley qu’il s’agit, et non une transposition directe11. (Morvan 2005, 199)

It is difficult to define faithfulness in translation because translation is about difference, and you cannot be faithful to every aspect of the novel. Intersemiotic translations such as films share the same problem; perhaps faithfulness has to be construed as tribute, which is what Ruaud seems to mean:

L’échec commercial fut au rendez-vous pour cette unique adaptation fidèle, sinon à la lettre, du moins à l’esprit des documents de Mary Shelley12. (Ruaud 2017, 107)

It would appear that the definition of faithfulness itself is fickle; maybe it just is what the author, filmmaker, or translator, makes of it, or how the novel affects her or his own sense of aesthetics, already informed by the times s/he lives in. Ruaud reminds us that the various versions of Frankenstein are set in various aesthetical timeframes:

Là encore, ce sont les adaptations qui sont à blâmer : tandis que Frankenstein est ancré dans le XVIIIe siècle, Hollywood l’a fait basculer dans le XXe, mieux connu du grand public et donc plus « vendeur » en termes d’esthétique13. (Ruaud 2017, 43)

As Frankenstein’s monster is immortal, his story is probably transposable in different periods of time, each proposing a different aesthetical perception of the novel. Only outstanding novels generate such a wealth of interpretations. According to Long Hoeveler:

The fact that the novel proved to be such fertile ground for so many different critical schools has no doubt led to its installation as the most frequently taught canonical novel written by a woman in the early nineteenth century. But to imply that literary critics “created” the novel as a work of literature is not fair to the work’s artistry or complexity. (Long Hoeveler 60)

It would indeed be unfair and almost condescending to think that critics saw more in the novel than the original author put in. Morvan seems to agree:

Et puis, comment peut-on laisser de côté l’extraordinaire originalité d’une existence qui a permis [à Mary Shelley] de transgresser les tabous les plus prescriptifs, dans son comportement personnel comme dans certains de ses travaux d’imagination ?14 (Morvan 2005, 338)

Mary Shelley’s uncommon life, intelligence, upbringing, education, acquaintances, etc. made her an accomplished writer who gained recognition internationally for her literary career. Nevertheless, of all her writings, it is Frankenstein that has been resonating the most with readerships across the world since 1818. The readers who contributed the most to that resonance are the translators as well as the adapters of the novel, who can be said to share authorship with Mary Shelley, to be co-authors of the whole work, and in some ways to overthrow her authority, but they cannot usurp her identity as the author of the original version.

In conclusion, as Frankenstein became well-known all over the world, it is very likely that the work became more famous than its original author, who after all was for some time confused with Percy Shelley. The translations of the novel created new readerships and the successive translations, in France for example, made the novel belong even more in the target culture. Successive translations mean successive readings, successive rediscoveries, and thematic approaches, such as the Oedipal reading, the Faustian reading, the biblical reading, or the feminist reading. Although there is a female translator in the corpus of translations here, namely Hannah Betjeman, she seemed to have another agenda than feminism while translating the novel: her editor probably asked her to shorten the text. Joe Ceurvorst tried to insert a great deal of his own literary style in his translation, and Morvan made a critic’s translation. The sheer number of translations into French makes it manifest that the interest in Frankenstein is such that the character and the monster have almost been adopted as part of the culture. It is no longer just the work of Mary Shelley, although she wrote the first version – or rather, versions. The authorship of the first version does not grant full authority. In fact, the presence of her name in the title of the Kenneth Branagh film could almost give the impression that she became a character of the story. To my mind, there is a parallel to draw between the impressive number of translations of Frankenstein and the number of intersemiotic translations into film, sequels, etc. in other countries, which might just mean that a work of art can be declined into an infinite number of versions, each version helping to consolidate the work into something akin to an intangible world heritage status.

Stéphan Lambadaris


  1. “Translations are full-blown versions of the work that they derive from, the original text itself being no more than a version, albeit essential, among others. This opinion is developed by Borges in ‘Las Versiones Homéricas'”, from Michael Oustinoff, La Traduction (Paris: PUF collection “Que sais-je?”, 2011), 62. All the translations in this essay are mine, except the translations of Frankenstein, of course.
  2. “We know that Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. The second edition dates back to 1823 and brings minor changes to the first edition. The third edition is released in 1831; this one contains a fair amount of modifications in which some might feel justified to see an ideological recentring – in that case, in a more reactionary way than in the 1818 edition.”
  3. “June 14, 1818: Mary writes to Walter Scott to thank him for his very good review of Frankenstein in the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Through this, Mary claims to be the author of the novel, which had been so far credited to Percy.”
  4. “It should first be noted that the current trend is to return to the 1818 edition.”
  5. “Too unfaithful.”
  6. Of course, famous authors are no longer answerable to their editors. George R. R. Martin’s editor can only wait for the next book and probably no longer tells him what he can and cannot write, or what the deadline is.
  7. The word “surplus” is a key word in a publication by Yocaris: Ilias Yocaris, Style et semiosis littéraire (Paris: Garnier, 2016).
  8. See Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility (London: Routledge, 1995).
  9. “It was by drawing from the mythological foundation of the Judeo-Christian civilisation and by exploiting the earliest stories that she could in turn create (like Victor Frankenstein creating his monster) a founding myth.”
  10. “Frankenstein’s monster went from the state of individual to that of stereotype. He was first painted blue (the colour that the first stage director chose), then, confused with Chaz Addams’s comedic take on the monster, painted green. His forehead became higher, his full head of long hair thinned and he lost his voice. Young Frankenstein’s creation was replaced by Boris Karloff’s.”
  11. With a closer look, the illusion of faithfulness vanishes. It really is a film based on Mary Shelley’s novel, and not a direct transposition.
  12. Commercial failure awaited this adaptation, the only one that is faithful, if not to the text, then at least to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s documents.
  13. Again, the blame should be lain on the adaptations: whereas Frankenstein is set in the 18th century, Hollywood transplanted it into the 20th, better known to the audience and therefore easier to please customers aesthetically.
  14. “How can we set aside the extraordinary originality of a life which allowed [Mary Shelley] to transgress the most forbidden taboos in her own behavior as well as in some of her fictional work?”

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Penguin Popular Classics, (1818) 1994.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Translated by Hannah Betjeman. Paris: Gallimard Jeunesse, (1947) 2018.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Translated by Joe Ceurvorst. Paris: Hachette Marabout, (1964) 2009. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Translated by Alain Morvan. Paris: Gallimard, 2014.

About Frankenstein:
Long Hoeveler, Diane. “Frankenstein, feminism, and literary theory.” In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 45-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Morvan, Alain. Mary Shelley et Frankenstein. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005. Ruaud, André-François. Sur la trace de Frankenstein. Bordeaux: Les Moutons Electriques, 2017.
Schor, Esther. “Frankenstein and film.” In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 63-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Anonymous. “Fiche livre : Frankenstein ou le Prométhée moderne.” Noosfere. Last modified: not mentioned. URL: <>. Date of last access: 11/24/18.